“We are going to the Sharks game!”
Those were the first words out of my dad’s mouth in Jan. 1993 when he entered the house moments after his shift with the Sheriff’s Department ended for the night.
A couple weeks prior, my dad had asked me if I wanted to see the Sharks play at the Cow Palace if he could get tickets in the Sheriff’s Department raffle.
Being an excited eight year old at the time, I of course said, “Yes, I want to go see the Sharks.”
Even though I was excited, I didn’t know much about the game of hockey. I had seen a few games on television but nothing substantial. I knew who Wayne Gretzky was but that was because of the Pro Stars NBC Saturday morning cartoon and the Wayne Gretzky Hockey NES video game I had gotten for my eighth birthday in Nov. 1992, which was also the day I saw the original Mighty Ducks movie in theaters.
As soon as my dad said we were going to the game, he showed me the two tickets and said I had to keep my grades up. Not only did I keep my grades up, I started watching hockey more frequently on ESPN so I could better understand the game. However, I didn’t get to see a Sharks game on television as ESPN didn’t televise their games (nor mention them on SportsCenter) and the cable provider in my hometown didn’t offer the then SportsChannel network or the KICU channel.
Despite not being able to see a Sharks game on television, I was still excited about getting to see the Sharks play live. In fact, I started telling everyone at school (even if they weren’t listening to me) that I was going to see the Sharks. To this day, I think I was the only person in the entire school excited about going to a hockey game as everyone else was into baseball, basketball and football.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, the day finally arrived. That morning, my third grade class took a field trip to the fairgrounds for an agricultural/science workshop and all I could think about was getting to see the Sharks that night. School got out early as it was a minimum day and as soon as my parents picked me up, we started the long drive from South Monterey County all the way up to Daily City.
My grandparents on my mom’s side lived in San Mateo at time and we stopped there to rest for a bit before my dad and I made the 18-minute drive to the Cow Palace (my mom and brother, who was two-and-a-half years old at the time, stayed with my grandparents).
During the short drive over to the Cow Palace, my dad kept asking me, “Are you sure you want to go?” I didn’t even hesitate when I said, “TOTALLY!” As my dad pulled up closer to the Cow Palace, I read the scrolling text on the electronic sign out front that said, “Tonight, 7:30, Jets vs. SHARKS.” Upon seeing that electronic message, I felt a rush of excitement come over me I had never felt before even though I had been to the Cow Palace a few times prior for then World Wrestling Federation (WWF) live events and Disney on Ice.
As my dad and I walked into the Cow Palace, I found myself surrounded in a sea of teal as the smell of hot dogs and popcorn found their way to my nose. I noticed everything in the corridor looked the same as it did for the WWF events I had attended with the only thing different being the merchandise stands were selling Sharks gear instead of WWF shirts and posters. Immediately, I eyed the Sharks white jersey and my dad said, “We will come back later to the booth. Let’s go to our seats.”
I took one step into the seating area on one of the goalie ends and my jaw dropped. I was in awe of the hockey rink, the players and the giant Sharks flag hanging in the rafters. After several minutes of taking everything in, I gave my dad a giant hug and said, “THANK YOU SO MUCH!”
As for the game, the Sharks played hard but lost 9-5. I remember the fans in the section we were sitting in loved Sharks forward Kelly Kisio, who finished with four points on two goals and two assists, and cheered wildly everytime his name was mentioned by the PA announcer. Also with a four point game that night was Sharks forward Johan Garpenlöv, who registered a hat-trick and yes, I tried to convince my dad to throw his hat onto the ice, to which he laughingly said, “I don’t think so.”
Despite the loss, I walked a little taller and a little prouder the next day at school as I was wearing my brand new (and first ever) Sharks jersey, the same one I had eyed at the merchandise stands.
The following is an exclusive interview with Ron DeGregorio, the current president of USA Hockey and a former owner of the Kentucky Thoroughblades, whom were the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the San Jose Sharks from 1996-2001.
What was it about Lexington that made it the destination for the Thoroughblades?
Rupp Arena was a major factor in deciding that Lexington would be a good location for an AHL team. Many Lexington people had not had an opportunity to see a live sporting event at the Rupp. Easy access to the Rupp for basketball games is not always possible. We felt hockey would provide an opportunity for people in Lexington to enjoy what Rupp had to offer on a regular basis. In addition, the original plans for Rupp anticipated a hockey rink. We felt that putting the rink exactly as original plans showed would be wonderful for fans watching hockey. We also felt that Lexington’s demographics and economics made sense for an AHL team.
I read in “Hockey Night in Dixie” that 5,000 people participated in a name-the-team contest. What made the organization choose the Thoroughblades name? Were there any names that made you go “really?”
That number is correct. We had a year to market the team before we were going on the ice. During that period, the ice was being installed and we used that time to market the team with various activities. The name-the-team contest was one of those activities early on. The Thoroughblades name was a natural for Lexington with its rich thoroughbred history. Frankly, when that name appeared, it struck us as a wonderful, strong and fun name to build a hockey team around. One of the names which provided a “really” reaction was Centurions. As I understand, a Centurion is a mythical half horse and half man. However, that name would not have had the same impact or fun as the Thoroughblades name.
I also read in “Hockey Night in Dixie” that 300 people attended the press conference where it was announced the T’Blades would be the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. How did the affiliation with San Jose come about?
Walter Bush and I had a relationship with George Gund III, one of the owners of the Sharks. The Sharks had made a decision to move from its former location, Kansas City. We had many discussions with then general manager Dean Lombardi and the management team of the Sharks. It seemed it would be a good fit for us and for the Sharks. We liked the Sharks and their hockey operation and they liked us as operators.
The T’Blades played at Rupp Arena, which is home to the Kentucky Wildcats college basketball team. How was Rupp Arena selected and did anyone from the university have any issue with hockey being played there?
The Rupp made sense for an AHL team as we felt the Rupp was consistent with our goal to have a first class experience for our players and fans. We felt that it was important to draw attention to the quality of the players that would be playing. These players were one step away from being a major league player. As it turned out, some of those players in Lexington became premier award winning players in the NHL.
We felt that the Rupp was willing to be partners with us over a long term to allow hockey to be an option for people to experience the Rupp and help the downtown area. We felt if we could maintain a first class organization, we could establish a hockey tradition in Lexington that would compliment the other great sports traditions in Lexington.
When we first came to town, Rick Pitino was the head coach of UK basketball and was supportive. He had been at colleges with hockey teams and knew Jackie Parker, who I knew. He understood that if done right, the ice should not be a problem for the court. We worked with Tom Minter, who was in charge of the Rupp during our first three years. He did an excellent job and was very helpful to the team in making sure the basketball court would be protected. There was never a problem.
Unfortunately, it became apparent after year three that the franchise would be asked by both the Sharks and the Rupp for more money for the affiliation agreement and the expiring lease at the end of year five. The Rupp also provided to UK more revenue rights that precluded our ability to grow revenue except within the context of the original lease agreement. With the change of management at the Rupp and additional needs by the Sharks, we saw the writing on the wall.
2,700 fans purchased season tickets for the inaugural season (1996-97); the season average was 7,608 fans (second in the league) and the team set an AHL attendance record with 17,503 fans for the home opener. How did the organization get so much fan support? That home opener number is only 59 people less than the current capacity of the Shark Tank.
Our business plan was to have one year of marketing before we got on the ice. Our goal was to come out strong and continue the momentum. With minor league franchises, once you lose momentum it can be a slippery slope downward.
We had a great relationship with the newspaper in town. We invested in advertising and they were supportive with others in the community to “Try Out Hockey at the Rupp.” As a result of the relative low cost (compared to larger markets and cities) to connect with fans, we were able to invest in advertising our entry into the market.
The buzz was on for those first two-and-a-half to three years. Each year we planned a “Blow Out” event on opening night. For the five years we were there, opening nights were very good. So, we put a lot in producing and advertising the opening nights as the start of hockey season.
The 1997-98 season, the home attendance average increased to 7,847 fans per game despite the T’Blades finishing 29-39-12. In the T’Blades’ final season (2000-01), the home average dropped to 4,461 fans per game. Why did the attendance drop off even though the T’Blades won two consecutive division championships within those final three years?
As I mentioned above, once you lose momentum, it’s a slippery slope. It became apparent in the press that we would be having difficulty with the cost of our Rupp lease and a new higher affiliation agreement. I was candid about those issues. So, before the final season, I believe there was recognition that the season may well be the final season for the T’Blades. I believe there had already been discussions by the new Rupp management of bringing in an ECHL team that they had determined would be more profitable to the Rupp than the T’Blades. So, the long term “partnership relationship” needed between the Rupp and the T’Blades to grow and cement the T’Blades was no longer as strong as it had been.
In the end, there were many factors that conspired to lose momentum to have hockey become another sport tradition in Lexington. As exciting and exhilarating the first three years were, the final two years saw the momentum reverse and there seemed to be only one answer after discussions failed.
Was the attendance drop a main factor in the T’Blades moving to Cleveland and becoming the Cleveland Barons prior to the 2001-02 season? How did the move from Kentucky to Cleveland come about?
It was indeed one of the factors. At the expense level needed to continue positive momentum, revenues needed to be at or near the level of the first years. So, it was obvious that due to the expenses required to remain in Lexington and with the Sharks, a sale needed to be made. Cleveland made the most sense as the Gund family owned the Cleveland Cavaliers at the time and needed a hockey team to meet certain obligations to basketball season ticket holders in Cleveland.
The Gund family owned the Sharks, who were our affiliate. We had a relationship with management and owners of the Sharks and Cleveland. We knew once a sale was the only solution for our group, the probability of movement was extremely high. For our group, there seemed to be no other solution based on our discussions with the Rupp and the Sharks concerning future lease and affiliation expenses.
I found an archived article online where Kevin Faris said that “hockey did not fail in Lexington, the Kentucky Thoroughblades failed.” Is it fair to say the T’Blades were a failure?
No, I don’t think the T’Blades were a failure. There were many great games, players, fans and memories that are a part of those wonderful five years. Hockey in Lexington became a reality. The excitement and energy in the city produced by the T’Blades was undeniable during the early years. I believe it’s fair to say the T’Blades, Rupp Management, City Leaders and the Sharks couldn’t come up with solutions that would’ve maintained the T’Blades as a growing tradition in the city. The hope was that we could provide a solution to maintain a high quality sports entertainment option at the Rupp.
How would you describe the Lexington hockey fans to someone who wasn’t around during the T’Blades era or to someone who was around but didn’t pay attention to them?
The fans were loud, fun, and wonderful to watch and be with. We did not have the scoreboards with video when we were at the Rupp. We did have fans dancing in the seats and who created entertainment with the help of our mascot Lucky, Walle Gerdts, who produced and directed our game production, and other members of our great staff.
Lexington is a wonderful place for families. It’s a wonderful place for a high quality hockey experience. They’re fans who can appreciate the value of this family sports entertainment option.
I was with Bob Hartley, the Calgary Flames head coach and former head coach of the Hershey Bears, last week. He spoke glowingly about his memories of Lexington and playing the T’Blades at the Rupp. It was “unbelievable” he said during those years. So, the fans were just great and above all else, my regret is that we could not find a solution in year four or five for those great fans.
Current Sharks defensemen Dan Boyle, Scott Hannan and Rob Davison played for the T’Blades as did former Sharks Shawn Burr, Jonathan Cheechoo, Evgeni Nabokov, Vesa Toskala, Ray Whitney, Steve Guolla, Jarrod Skalde, Alex Korolyuk, Mikka Kiprusoff, Mark Smith and Wade Flaherty. Even current Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara played for the T’Blades. Seeing the success those players have had in their professional careers, does it give you a proud fatherly feeling?
Yes, I do feel proud of the T’Blades and those who were part of that group. I was privileged to see some great hockey during those five years and some great players. I really believe the AHL was a great fit for the Rupp and Lexington. For those five years, fans and others were treated to some of the best hockey outside the NHL. I loved being in Lexington and loved the people who were there.
Jim Wiley was the head coach for the T’Blades’ first two seasons and then Roy Sommer became the head coach prior to the 1998-99 season. How was Coach Sommer, who was the only Barons head coach and has been the only Worcester Sharks head coach, selected and what would you say to those who’ve felt for the last few seasons that its time Worcester had a new head coach?
I cannot answer that. San Jose under our agreement handled the staff, players and made all decisions on personnel. But, I know Coach Sommer is among the best development coaches in hockey. When we were together, I was impressed with his attention to detail and commitment in developing his players. San Jose is very fortunate to have someone like him to nurture young players for the major league.
Hockey returned to Lexington for the 2002-03 season in the form of the ECHL Lexington Men O’War, who lasted one season at Rupp Arena (2,368 fan average) and were revived for the 2005-06 season as the present day Utah Grizzlies. Do you think Lexington today could support a pro hockey team in either the SPHL, ECHL or AHL?
Yes, I think with the right situation, hockey can be revived in Lexington. I think the hockey group that brings hockey must be a first class LOCAL group. The group must have the support of Lexington City leaders and Rupp management. It will take time to build a tradition of hockey there. But, this time there needs to be stronger, longer term ties with the City and Rupp leaders with the ownership group for a tradition to endure. So, with local ownership with substance and a right situation, hockey could provide another sports entertainment option for Lexington families and fans. It’s a great city with great people.
Why was Evgeni Nabokov called “John”? I even found a hockey card on eBay that lists him as John.
Haha, I don’t know but I do remember at one point calling him Evgeni and he said, “Mr. D, just call me John.” So, I think he decided to be called John when he was in Lexington but you would need to confirm that with him.
What did you think when seeing the photo of Backstreet Boys member Kevin Richardson sporting a T’Blades jersey?
I recall the many different groups and events Walle Gerdts and other staff members orchestrated as part of a T’Blades game production. The Backstreet Boys were one of the attractions and the excitement for them at the game was enormous. But Walle and her staff knew we had 40 events to put on each year and at every event there would be a hockey game.
What would you like hockey fans to remember most about the T’Blades?
I hope they remember the fun and entertainment they had at each game. I hope they feel good they were able to see some “first class” hockey with so many players that have become premier major league players in the NHL. I hope they remember how much our great staff did to please the fans: from the best of mascots, Lucky, to the game night crew under the leadership of the incomparable Walle Gerdts, producer and director extraordinaire, to the high performance players who loved Lexington and its people. It was a magical time both with triumphs and tragedies but I hope the fans remember the fun that was the Thoroughblades.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview Mr. Gaudreau. First question I got to ask is do you happen to know who the guilty players were that Drew Remenda referred to in his jet skiing story during a broadcast of San Jose Sharks Classic Games on CSN CA in December 2012?
I do not know.
(Editor’s note: This mystery will eventually be solved)
For Sharks fans who may not know, you’re currently the President of Cathedral Development Group, Inc, a real estate management company that you’re one of the founders of. How did you become interest in real estate?
My father started the company 35 years ago and the financial aspect of it interested me. Being able to re-develop something into a better use is challenging. We have amassed roughly $150 million dollar portfolio and counting.
Has the hockey player in you ever felt the need to body check someone during a meeting?
No, but things I learned in hockey and being on a team has helped me in everything I do in business. I can spot someone who has never been in a team atmosphere right away when dealing with something new. Everything that goes on with being on a team can be used in another professional life.
Along with Mike Boback, the two of you combined for 412 points during your four year careers at Providence College. Boback is fourth all-time in Friars scoring with 201 points and you’re third with 211 points. Also, you both led the Friars to two NCAA tournament appearances and four 20-win seasons. What would you attribute to your guys’ chemistry and scoring ability?
We both had unique skill sets that complimented each other and we didn’t duplicate anything. Putting us together brought out our strengths and covered our weaknesses.
Current Shark Brent Burns was moved to forward from defense last season but the opposite happened to you during your senior season (1991-92), a season in which you were a Hobey Baker Finalist and won the Walter Brown Trophy as you led the country in scoring with 55 points on 21 goals and 34 assists. What was it like going from a forward to a defenseman?
To me, it wasn’t that big of a deal as I had played a lot of defense growing up. Every child growing up should have to play both positions because it helps you get a better understanding of the game.
You’re the all-time leader in goals scored at Providence College with 103 and are the only player to ever score 100 or more goals. Your 108 assists are fourth all-time in Friars history. Furthermore, you were named 1988-89 Hockey East Rookie of the Year; earned two All-Hockey East honors; selected to the 1992 Hockey East All-Tournament Team; named the 1992 New England Player of the Year and Top Defenseman; selected to the 1990 USA World Junior Championship team; and were a two-time All-New England selection. Do you ever look back at your collegiate career and say, “Wow” or “Dang”?
My college career was great. It really hit home when I was named one of the Hockey East 50 Greatest Players of all-time a few years back. It goes by quick and it’s always fun to look back a little every now and then.
Originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the ninth round (172 overall) of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, what went through your mind when the expansion Sharks selected you in the 1991 NHL Dispersal Draft?
I felt it was a better opportunity to get to the NHL faster and it was. The Sharks have always done a great job of giving their young players a legitimate chance, which as a player is all you can ask for.
During your first professional season (1992-93), you registered 14 points (6-8-14) in 19 games with the IHL Kansas City Blades, whom were the Sharks’ top minor league affiliate at the time. What stands out the most to you from your time in Kansas City?
Just learning the pro game. Playing that many games in a short period of time with no breaks was intense.
What did you think of the Cow Palace when you got called up to San Jose?
The Cow Palace was unique with a great atmosphere and passionate fans. That place grew on you. The opponents probably thought it was a dump but to me, it seemed like the Taj Mahal as it was my first NHL rink.
In your rookie season with the Sharks, you registered 43 points (20-23-43) in 59 games. In addition, you registered the first two hat tricks in Sharks history, the first of which was in your second NHL game. How were you able to quickly adjust to the NHL game?
I had great linemates in (Kelly) Kisio and (Johan) Garpenlöv. Also, we struggled so that gave me a chance to play more and learn from my mistakes.
Did you get to keep the pucks from your first NHL hat trick?
Yes. They’re on a plaque with a picture of me holding the three of them.
The 1992-93 Sharks only won 11 games and set league records for most losses in a season (71) and most consecutive losses (17). What would then head coach George Kingston and the coaching staff say to the team to keep them mentally engaged?
They would say we were getting an opportunity and to make the most of it.
For the 1993-94 season, the Sharks moved into San Jose Arena, now known as SAP Center. What was your reaction to the Arena the first time you played there?
Spectacular, loud and a great home ice advantage.
The 1993-94 season is known as The Greatest Turnaround in NHL history as the Sharks, under head coach Kevin Constantine, went from 11 wins to 33 wins (along with 16 ties) for 82 points. In addition, the Sharks made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time, eliminated the top seeded Detroit Red Wings, and nearly eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs. What was it like being a part of that team and seeing Playoff Fever hit San Jose after the struggles of the previous seasons?
It was overwhelming. The Sharks fans deserve a winner. They have embraced the team since day one and I bet every player would say the same.
Randy Hahn said on a 2013 broadcast that he believes the 1993-94 Sharks team is still the only NHL team to have a parade after a second round loss. What did the team think when they found out about the parade and how was the parade?
The parade was fun. Coach Constantine thought it was a little funny too.
After two solid seasons with the Sharks, you played the next two seasons (1994-96) with the Ottawa Senators. What was it like going from San Jose to Ottawa both hockey and weather wise?
The weather was freezing but it was great to play professional hockey in Canada. Hockey is 24/7 north of the border.
For the 1996-97 season, you played for Chaux-de-Fonds of the Swiss A League and finished as the team leading scorer with 42 points on 19 goals and 23 assists. What was the biggest difference between the Swiss A League and the NHL?
The three biggest differences were no hitting, open ice and less games. Switzerland in my opinion is the best country in Europe to play hockey in as the country and people are beautiful.
What made you decide to retire from hockey at the age of 27?
Burnout and I had a chance to put to use my Bachelor’s of Art degree in Social Sciences with a great business opportunity. It (playing career) has got to end some time.
When you’re away from the office, what are your interests and hobbies that help you relax?
Playing golf and traveling with my wife Christina.
In 2003, you were inducted into the Providence College Hall of Fame. What was that day like?
That day was Awesome. Providence College has been a part of my life since I was a child as I grew up there.
Do you still keep tabs on the Sharks and the current NHL game?
I do keep up on the Sharks but not a ton of watching. I wish the Sharks would win a Stanley Cup as the city of San Jose deserves it.
For the hockey fans who had the chance to watch you play and for the fans who have learned about you through archival footage on CSN CA and Youtube, what would you like the fans to remember most about you?
I worked hard every night, brought some fun in our second year, and of course, the first hat trick.
**Photos were scanned from the 1994-95 Upper Deck Electric Ice, 1993 Classic Pro Prospects, and 1993-94 Upper Deck trading cards as well as Steve Cameron’s “Feeding Frenzy” 1994 book.**
In the post, Ruben stated he had submitted a “Shark Pride” San Jose Sharks themed shoe into a shoe design contest for Keds.com. A screen cap of the shoe on Facebook was posted in the thread by a fellow board member (only Facebook users could vote in the contest) along with the description:
“My inspiration comes from the loyal SJ locals. Downtown on game day, the streets are flooded with mobs of fans showing their support for our beloved SJ Sharks. Painting the town TEAL!”
I have no idea if Ruben won the contest as the links he provided in the initial post to his design and the contest have expired. Regardless if Ruben won or lost the contest, the design is SHARKTASTIC and I, along with all Sharks fans, would love to own a pair of these shoes.